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Antepurgatory Image
Cato. Cantos 1.31-108, 2.118-23;
Angel. Canto 2.13-51;
Casella. Canto 2.76-114;
Manfred. Canto 3.103-45;
Belacqua. Canto 4.97-135;
Buonconte da Montefeltro.
Canto 5.85-129;
La Pia. Canto 5.130-6;

Allegory. Canto 2.46-8
Study Questions

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Cato. Cantos 1.31-108, 2.118-23
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A stern, father-like figure, Cato of Utica (95-46 B.C.E.) was a Roman military leader and statesman. Dante describes Cato as having a long grizzled beard and graying hair falling down over his chest in two tresses; his face is illuminated by starlight (as if he were facing the sun). As the warden or guardian of the mountain of Purgatory, Cato performs a role somewhat similar to that of Charon in Hell. Dante seems to have assigned this prominent role to Cato because he so valued freedom that he gave his life for it (1.71-2): the historical Cato chose suicide over submission to tyranny after he was defeated (along with Pompey) in the civil war against Julius Caesar. Classical authors, including Cicero, Seneca, and Lucan, considered Cato the embodiment of moral and political rectitude. Virgil, for instance, presents Cato as one who gives laws to the righteous (Aen. 8.670). Based on this reputation, Cato was thought to possess in full the four cardinal (moral) virtues, symbolized here by the four "holy" stars lighting his face (1.37-9). Dante follows this legacy of praise for Cato, despite his status as a pagan suicide who opposed Caesar, by calling him in an earlier work the human being best suited to represent God (Convivio 4.28.15) and by now imagining his spiritual salvation (freed from Limbo at Christ's Harrowing of Hell) and divinely-ordained function in the afterlife.
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Angel. Canto 2.13-51
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A beautiful white angel ("divine bird") pilots a boat carrying the souls to the island-mountain of Purgatory. The angel stands toward the back of the boat (a low vessel swiftly cutting through the water) with his bright white wings, powering the boat, rising up toward heaven. The angel's overwhelming luminosity renders invisible his other features. The appearance and actions of this angel, typical of other "officials" whom the travelers will meet in Purgatory (2.30), invite comparison with the characteristics and roles of Charon and Phlegyas, both assigned to water transport in Hell, as well as the heavenly messenger who assists Dante and Virgil at the gates of Dis.
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Casella. Canto 2.76-114
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A dear friend of Dante, Casella was a singer and composer from Florence (or perhaps the nearby town of Pistoia). He set lyric poems to music and performed these arrangements, as he does here on the shores of Purgatory with Dante's canzone, "Love that speaks within my mind" (2.112) (audio). Casella died sometime before Easter Sunday 1300 (when Dante arrives in Purgatory) and after July 13, 1282, the date of a document from Siena reporting that he was fined for wandering about the city at night. Casella's own arrival now, after having previously been refused passage to Purgatory, is a result of the plenary indulgence granted by Pope Boniface VIII on Christmas 1299 for the Jubilee year (1300). He smiles, showing both affection and bemusement, when Dante tries futilely to embrace his soul-body (2.76-84), a scene recalling how Aeneas sought to clasp the shade of his father, Anchises, in the underworld of Virgil's Aeneid (6.700-2).
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Manfred. Canto 3.103-45
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A handsome, warrior-like nobleman, Manfred (c. 1232-66) is the illegitimate son of the emperor Frederick II, who is listed among the heretics in Inferno 10. Raised in the cosmopolitan Hohenstaufen court in Sicily, Manfred knew several languages (including Hebrew and Arabic) and was a poet and musician as well as a patron of arts and letters (e.g., the "Sicilian School" of poetry). Dante praises both him and Frederick as exemplary rulers for their noble, refined character (De vulgari eloquentia 1.12.4). Manfred also authored a document, "Manifesto to the Roman People" (May 24, 1265), that advances a political philosophy not unlike Dante's. Following the death of his father, and later his half-brother (Conrad IV), Manfred assumed power and had himself crowned King of Sicily in 1258. His political successes were perhaps not unrelated to the "horrible sins" to which he now alludes (3.121) (audio): he was alleged by some to have murdered his father, half-brother, and two nephews, and to have tried to assassinate the heir to the throne (his nephew Conradin). Allied with the ghibelline cause (he helped defeat the guelphs at Montaperti in 1260), Manfred was certainly no friend of the papacy: he was twice excommunicated, first by Alexander IV in 1258 and then by Urban IV in 1261. So abhorrent was Manfred to popes of the period (they considered him a "Saracen" and "infidel") that they declared a crusade and sent an army under the command of Charles I of Anjou to defeat him. His troops vastly outnumbered, Manfred was betrayed by some of his own men and killed in battle at Benevento (southern Italy) on February 26, 1266. He now shows Dante his battle scars (an eye-brow split by a sword-stroke and a wound on his chest) and relates the fate of his poor body. An excommunicate, Manfred was refused burial in sacred ground and left on the battlefield, but, the legend goes, each enemy soldier as he passed by placed a stone on the grave. Later, according to Dante's version, the Archbishop of Cosenza, at the behest of Pope Clement IV, had Manfred's bones disinterred and cast outside the kingdom onto the banks of the river Verde (3.124-32). The excommunicates, Manfred informs Dante, must wait in Ante-Purgatory thirty times the length of their period of excommunication, unless the sentence is shortened by prayers of the living (3.136-41).
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Belacqua. Canto 4.97-135
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Sitting in the shade of a large boulder, with his arms wrapped around his knees and his head lowered, Belacqua epitomizes the lazy spirits who waited until the last minute before repenting and turning to God. These souls must now wait in Ante-Purgatory for as long as they negligently delayed their repentance on earth: that is, the length of their mortal lives. Aware of this rule, Belacqua, true to character, is in no rush to begin the arduous climb up the mountain. "Belacqua" is most likely the nickname of Duccio di Bonavia, a Florentine musician and instrument maker with whom Dante appears to have had a warm friendship characterized by comical, witty teasing. Since Belacqua was still alive in 1299, it's plausible that he died shortly before Dante's arrival in Purgatory in 1300. One early commentator, calling Belacqua the laziest man who ever lived, repeats the gossip that from the moment Belacqua arrived in his shop in the morning and sat down, he never got up except to eat and sleep.
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Buonconte da Montefeltro. Canto 5.85-129
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Buonconte da Montefeltro (born c. 1250) was, like his father Guido, a formidable leader of ghibelline forces in Tuscany. He played a prominent role in the expulsion of the guelphs from Arezzo (1287) and the defeat of Sienese troops a year later. Buonconte did not fare so well as captain of the ghibelline army that was soundly defeated by the Florentine guelphs at Campaldino on June 11, 1289. Dante, who fought alongside his fellow Florentines, now provides a dramatic answer to a lingering question from the clash: what happened to Buonconte's body, which was not found on the battlefield? We learn that Buonconte, mortally wounded in the throat, fled the plain and arrived at the bank of a river (Archiano), where he died with Mary's name on his lips. The subsequent struggle for Buonconte's soul then repeats, with opposite results, the tussle between Saint Francis and the devil for the soul of Buonconte's father (Inf. 27.112-23). Here the good angel "wins" the soul for heaven, thus leaving the evil angel to punish Buonconte's corpse by bringing flooding rains that sweep the body downstream into the Arno, where it is buried in the riverbed (5.109-29). The slain soldier now appears in Ante-Purgatory among those who sinned right up until the moment they died a violent death; only then did they repent and forgive, thereby leaving the world in peace with God (5.52-7).
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La Pia. Canto 5.130-6
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"Siena made me, Maremma unmade me" (5.134). This chillingly concise phrase tells us that the speaker here is Pia Tolomei: born to a noble family of Siena, this woman was allegedly killed in 1295 on the orders of her husband, Paganello de' Pannocchieschi. "Nello," a Tuscan leader of the guelphs, owned a castle in the Maremma (the coastal region near Siena). While some say the murder took place with such secrecy that its manner was never known, others claim Nello ordered a servant to take Pia by the feet and drop her from the castle window. A motive for the murder may have been Nello's desire to marry his neighbor, a widowed countess. Pia's concern for Dante's well being and her request to be remembered perhaps recall the courtesy displayed by another woman, Francesca, in the fifth canto of the Inferno.
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Arrival In Purgatory Icon
More so than for Hell and Heaven, Dante has significant leeway in imagining and representing this realm of the Christian afterlife. While there is no specific reference to a place called "Purgatory" in the Bible, the concept took shape over the course of early Christianity and the Middle Ages on the basis of biblical support for what would later become Purgatory. (This concept has been a major point of doctrinal disagreement since the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.) Thus Judas Machabeus, honoring the custom of offering prayers for those who died in God's grace, proclaims that it is "a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Mach. 12:46). The idea of trial by fire, another important conceptual component of Purgatory, figures prominently in the Bible: "Thou hast proved my heart," sings the psalmist, "and visited it by night, thou hast tried me by fire: and iniquity had not been found in me" (Psalm 16:3). John the Baptist, who baptizes in water, prophesies the greater power of Jesus, saying "[h]e shall baptize you in the Holy Ghost and fire" (Matt. 3:11). Based on these and other passages, medieval theologians introduced the idea of 'purging fires' as a way to imagine the purification of souls who died in God's grace but bore the stains and habits of sin. From the adjective purgatorius arose the noun Purgatorium as the concept of Purgatory received full theological legitimation in the mid- to late thirteenth century (e.g., at the Second Council of Lyons in 1274).
The elaboration of this concept can also be seen in depictions of the afterlife in popular visionary literature of the Middle Ages before Dante. (See Visions of Heaven and Hell before Dante, ed. Eileen Gardiner [New York: Italica Press, 1989].) The author of "Drythelm's Vision" (7th century) speaks of "consuming flames and cutting cold" that punish certain souls; helped by prayers, alms, fasting, and masses, "they will all be received into the Kingdom of Heaven at the Day of Judgment" (61). "St. Patrick's Purgatory" (mid 12th century) describes harsh punishments to purge souls of their repented sins and thus enable their return to the same terrestrial paradise from which humanity was banished (144). The "Monk of Evesham" (end of 12th century) also describes harsh, cruel torments; nonetheless, "[b]y atoning for their crimes or by the intercession of others, in that place of exile and punishment, they might earn admission to the heavenly country" (204). And in "Thurkill's Vision" (dated 1206), the souls pass through a "large purgatorial fire" and are immersed in a lake "incomparably salty and cold" (222).
Elements from both theological authorities and popular accounts--including painful (if fitting) torments, at times tempered or shortened by prayers and good works of the living--certainly inform Dante's Purgatorio. However, the poet creates the world's most enduring image of this second realm of the afterlife by fully developing the concept of purgatory in the way we would expect: meticulous geographical and topographical representation of the region; sophisticated application of sources that both reinforces and challenges received dogma; subtle psychological portraits of its inhabitants; dramatic interactions between these characters and Dante himself as well as between Dante and his guide, Virgil; and creative opportunities for trenchant social, moral, and political commentary on the world of the living.
Of particular conceptual originality is Dante's Ante-Purgatory, the region rising from the shore at the mountain's base to the gate of Purgatory proper at the limit of the earth's atmosphere. This area is populated by souls who were excommunicated by the Church or who for various reasons delayed repentance to the end of their lives.
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Allegory. Canto 2.46-8
As the souls arrive at the shores of Purgatory they are singing Psalm 114 (113 in the Vulgate), which begins "In exitu Isräel de Aegypto" [When Israel went out of Egypt] (2.46-8). This very Psalm, not coincidentally, is used to illustrate a way of interpreting the Divine Comedy in a letter believed to have been written either by Dante himself or by another learned person of his age:
Now if we look at the letter alone, what is signified to us is the departure of the sons of Israel from Egypt during the time of Moses; if at the allegory, what is signified to us is our redemption through Christ; if at the moral sense, what is signified to us is the conversion of the soul from the sorrow and misery of sin to the state of grace; if at the anagogical, what is signified to us is the departure of the sanctified soul from bondage to the corruption of this world into the freedom of eternal glory. And although these mystical senses are called by various names, they may all be called allegorical, since they are all different from the literal or historical.
("The Letter to Can Grande," in Literary Criticism of Dante Alighieri, translated and edited by Robert S. Haller [Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973], 99)
This interpretive method, known as the "four-fold method" or the "allegory of theologians," was commonly applied to the Bible in the Middle Ages. The four senses could be remembered with the following medieval Latin ditty:
Littera gesta docet,
Quod credas allegoria.
Moralia quod agas,
Quo tendas anagogia.
The literal sense teaches what happened,
The allegorical what you believe.
The moral what you should do,
The anagogical where you are going.

The "Letter to Can Grande" also provides a more basic description of the allegory of Dante's poem:
The subject of the whole work, then, taken literally, is the state of souls after death, understood in a simple sense; for the movement of the whole work turns upon this and about this. If on the other hand the work is taken allegorically, the subject is man, in the exercise of his free will, earning or becoming liable to the rewards or punishments of justice.
What is most remarkable about Dante's idea of allegory, and what sharply distinguishes the Divine Comedy from many other allegorical works, is the poet's emphasis (sincere or rhetorical as it may be) on the literal or historical truth of his narrative as a foundation for any other level of meaning. Dante himself followed a simpler form of allegory in other works, such as the Convivio (dedicated to Lady Philosophy). The poem sung by Casella (2.112-14) is in fact a canzone ("Love that speaks within my mind") to which the narrator-commentator of the Convivio provides an allegorical reading.
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"Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona" (2.112)
Love that speaks within my mind
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"Orribil furon li peccati miei" (3.121)
My sins were horrible
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"Tu te ne porti di costui l'etterno / per una lagrimetta" (5.106-7)
You take away his eternal part for a teardrop
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Study Questions
1. What might be Dante's reasons for choosing Cato, a pagan suicide who opposed Caesar (three strikes against him from Dante's perspective), as the guardian of the mountain of Purgatory? Consider the effects of this decision, particularly on Virgil.
2. In describing his arrival on the shores of Purgatory (an island-mountain in the southern hemisphere), the poet repeats images and words from the episode of Ulysses in Inferno 26. Figuring his talent as a sailing vessel (Purg. 1.1-3), Dante informs us that no one before him has traveled to these shores and returned alive to tell about the journey (Purg. 1.130-32). When Dante says Virgil girt him with the reed, he repeats (for the only time in the poem) the exact words--"as pleased another" (com' altrui piacque; Purg. 1.133)--that Ulysses uses to indicate the power behind his fatal shipwreck (Inf. 26.141). Consider the implications of these parallels between Dante's arrival in Purgatory (and the poem describing it) and Ulysses' final voyage.
3. What conclusion might we draw from the fact the new arrivals in Purgatory, who are blessed by the angel as they finish singing a psalm (2.46-51), are a short while later scolded (by Cato) along with Dante and Virgil for listening so happily to the words of a poem (written by Dante) beautifully sung by Casella (2.112-23)?
4. Compare the treatment of Buonconte's soul and body (5.85-129) with the fate of his father, Guido da Montefeltro (Inf. 27.61-132). What seems to be the theological lesson here?
5. The shadow cast by Dante's body is a source of wonder to spirits in the Ante-Purgatory (3.88-99; 5.1-9; 5.22-36). How might this shadow serve not only as a pretext for conversation between Dante and the spirits but also as a manifestation of Dante's overall conception of the afterlife in the poem, Purgatory in particular?
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